Posts Tagged With: parody

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland


Now, this was not really what I had in mind when I created this blog, but I have need of a place to put this, and it doesn’t escape me how perfectly the titles match, so here it is.

My Classical Conversations Challenge II class is reading Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland this week.  Yes, it’s known as a children’s book, but unless you are a child living in Victorian London, you will probably not understand most of the allusions in this book, so it does actually provide a challenge to the 10th grade mind.  To make the enjoyment easier for this book, I will attempt to explain some of the references and allusions here. But first I will digress.

The first thing you have to keep in mind about Alice’s Adventures is that it was written by a British Person.  This is a very important detail.  British people love… LOVE to play with words.  You see that in Dickens, in Oscar Wilde, in Harry Potter (Diagon Alley?  Seriously?  You get that, right?), and you will see that all over Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  Especially Chapter 9.  Just look for the puns, people.

Also, British adults love to tell funny stories to kids and weave in satirical political zingers or commentaries on society that only an adult would get.  It’s just what we do.  The kids don’t notice, and the adults who happen to overhear silently bust a gut over in the corner, trying not to interrupt.  That’s how British humor works — as long as one person in the room gets it, it’s worth it.  In fact, if ONLY one person in the room gets it, it’s three times as funny.  There’s probably a mathematical formula for that.

And British people love to be silly, but only when it is agreed all around that it is an appropriate time to be silly, such as when one is telling a story to children.  Or when one is being John Cleese, but that only applies to one of us, so it’s not actually a very good rule of thumb.

At any rate, here are the things that British school-children in 1865 would have found side-splittingly funny, but which probably go right over the heads of the rest of us.

Chapter One

As Alice is falling down the rabbit hole, she begins to recite facts that might apply to her situation.  British education of the time dealt in a lot of memorization and recitation.  The fact that she uses words that apply only slightly, although without knowing their actual meaning, is delightful. It’s like when someone posts a list of really bad answers to test questions; we find it so funny because you can see how the kid ALMOST grasped the concept but then totally didn’t.

The rest of Chapter One comprises mostly of the eating and drinking of cakes and unidentified liquids, which, as they are not explicitly marked “poison,” must be all right.  This is one of those social commentaries that the kids might feel flying over their heads, but as they don’t have enough experience to grasp it, just let the thought fly on by.

This chapter is also why Lewis Carroll is purported to have written this story by simply writing down what he saw while under the influence of a substance he certainly should not have ingested.  But that’s a whole other discussion that has been thoroughly explored by Jefferson Airplane.

Chapter Two

Alice, in trying to pull herself together after a long, hard trip, once again resorts to listing things that she knows, but everything is so muddled she settles on reciting a poem.  Unfortunately, it starts out “How doth the little crocodile…” and goes downhill from there.  Here is the text of the poem Carroll was parodying, which was a poem school children had to memorize, and which was supposed to instill in them a work ethic and make them Good Citizens.

The Busy Bee children's periodical, 1866

The Busy Bee children’s periodical, 1866

How Doth the Little Bee
Isaac Watts

How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!

How skillfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.

In Works of Labor or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For idle Hands to do.

In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last


A Lory

Chapter 3

Alice finds herself in the company of a host of creatures who fell into the puddle of her tears.  Among them are a lory and a dodo.  Here are images of those birds:


A Dodo

Also, here is a definition: A “Caucus-race” is a political competition; the game of campaigning and one-upmanship to get votes and be elected.   Thanks to Carroll, the term “caucus race” has now taken on the added meaning of a confusing, complicated and generally useless exercise.

Chapter 5

The Caterpillar asks Alice to recite “You Are Old, Father William” to demonstrate how everything has become muddled.  The poem Carroll is parodying here is:

The Old Man’s Comforts And How He Gained Them

by Robert Southey

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,
The few locks which are left you are grey;
You are hale, Father William, a hearty old man,
Now tell me the reason I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,
I remember’d that youth would fly fast,
And abused not my health and my vigour at first
That I never might need them at last.

you are old father william

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,
And pleasures with youth pass away,
And yet you lament not the days that are gone,
Now tell me the reason I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,
I remember’d that youth could not last;
I thought of the future whatever I did,
That I never might grieve for the past.

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,
And life must be hastening away;
You are chearful, and love to converse upon death!
Now tell me the reason I pray.

I am chearful, young man, Father William replied,
Let the cause thy attention engage;
In the days of my youth I remember’d my God!
And He hath not forgotten my age.

Chapter 6

The Duchess sings a horrible song to her baby, beginning with “Speak roughly to your little boy…”  What made it funny, rather than horrible, to the children of the day, however, is that it was based on the following poem:

Speak Gently
G. W. Langford

Speak gently! It is better far
To rule by love than fear
Speak gently; let no harsh word mar
The good we may do here!

Speak gently to the little child!
Its love be sure to gain;
Teach it in accents soft and mild;
It may not long remain.

Speak gently to the young, for they
Will have enough to bear;
Pass through this life as best they may,
’Tis full of anxious care!

Speak gently to the aged one,
Grieve not the care-worn heart;
Whose sands of life are nearly run,
Let such in peace depart!

Speak gently, kindly to the poor;
Let no harsh tone be heard;
They have enough they must endure,
Without an unkind word!

Speak gently to the erring; know
They must have toiled in vain;
Perchance unkindness made them so;
Oh, win them back again.

Speak gently; Love doth whisper low
The vows that true hearts bind;
And gently Friendship’s accents flow;
Affection’s voice is kind.

Speak gently; ’tis a little thing
Dropped in the heart’s deep well;
The good, the joy, that it may bring,
Eternity shall tell.

Chapter 9

We called him a tortoise because he taught us.  You have to pronounce this with an English accent to get it.  Go ahead.  Try it.

miss happy crop

Finally, a clothing store for clumsy women.

“French, music and washing – extra.”  This does not, as at least one article I have read suggests, allude to the fact that women in Victorian times were only supposed to know about things like laundry.    Let us all pause a moment and shake our heads at this nonsense, which obviously sprang, fully formed, from the mind of a person with no sense of humor.

No, this line is simply an instance where Carroll, having seen something that always struck him as funny but never having had a place to use it, jumps at the chance and works it into the discussion.  According to “The Annotated Alice,” this phrase often appeared on advertisements for boarding schools, meaning that there was an extra charge for French and music, and for having one’s laundry done by the school. (source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.128))

I find this delightful, because this is the type of thing, when I find it in a footnote at the bottom of a brochure, or a public sign, or a store name, that just sends me into hysterics.  Like this (sadly, now closed) women’s clothing store near my home.  I drove past it one day specifically so I could get a photo of it.

Come on, think about it.  Mishap-y?

At any rate, once Carroll got on a roll in this chapter, he just could not stop the puns from happening.  My British father used to be like this.  He could go on for a good 10 minutes on one subject, working related words into every sentence.  Like trees:  “You’re obviously barking up the wrong tree there.”  “I can’t be-leaf you just said that.”  “This conversation needs to branch out into other topics.”   And on and on.

As much as I hate to ruin a good pun by spelling it out, here is a short list of the puns in the Mock Turtle’s description of his education.  Before you read the list, see how many of the puns you can get on your own.  It really helps to speak the words out loud.  Even if you can’t do a British accent.

Puns about the Mock Turtle’s Education:

Reeling – reading

Writhing – writing

Ambition – addition

Distraction – subtraction

Uglification – multiplication

Derision – division

Mystery – history

Seaography – geography

Drawling – drawing

Stretching – sketching

Fainting in coils – painting in oils

Laughing – Latin

Grief – Greek

lessons – lessen

Chapter 10

The Mock Turtle sings a song while he and the Gryphon demonstrate a dance called the Lobster Quadrille to Alice, “Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail…



Here is the poem being parodied (and a picture of a whiting, just for fun)

The Spider And The Fly

by Mary Howitt  (1799-1888)

“Will you walk into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly;
“‘Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you may spy.
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many curious things to show when you are there.”
“Oh no, no,” said the little fly; “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”

“I’m sure you must be weary, dear, with soaring up so high.
Well you rest upon my little bed?” said the spider to the fly.
“There are pretty curtains drawn around; the sheets are fine and thin,
And if you like to rest a while, I’ll snugly tuck you in!”
“Oh no, no,” said the little fly, “for I’ve often heard it said,
They never, never wake again who sleep upon your bed!”

Said the cunning spider to the fly: “Dear friend, what can I do

To prove the warm affection I’ve always felt for you?
I have within my pantry good store of all that’s nice;
I’m sure you’re very welcome – will you please to take a slice?”
“Oh no, no,” said the little fly; “kind sir, that cannot be:
I’ve heard what’s in your pantry, and I do not wish to see!”

“Sweet creature!” said the spider, “you’re witty and you’re wise;
How handsome are your gauzy wings; how brilliant are your eyes!
I have a little looking-glass upon my parlor shelf;
If you’d step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself.”
“I thank you, gentle sir,” she said, “for what you’re pleased to say,

And, bidding you good morning now, I’ll call another day.”

The spider turned him round about, and went into his den,
For well he knew the silly fly would soon come back again:
So he wove a subtle web in a little corner sly,
And set his table ready to dine upon the fly;
Then came out to his door again and merrily did sing:
“Come hither, hither, pretty fly, with pearl and silver wing;

Your robes are green and purple; there’s a crest upon your head;
Your eyes are like diamond bright, but mine are dull as lead!”

Alas, alas! how very soon this silly little fly,
Hearing his wily, flattering words, came slowly flitting by;
With buzzing wings she hung aloft, then near and nearer grew,
Thinking only of her brilliant eyes and green and purple hue,
Thinking only of her crested head. Poor, foolish thing! at last

Up jumped the cunning spider, and fiercely held her fast;
He dragged her up his winding stair, into the dismal den –
Within his little parlor – but she ne’er came out again!

And now, dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly flattering words I pray you ne’er give heed;
Unto an evil counselor close heart and ear and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale of the spider and the fly.

Here are a couple of puns that happen after the song:

soles and eels – (shoe) soles and heels

porpoise – purpose

And finally, Carroll either really liked, or really hated the poetry of Isaac Watts.  I’m inclined to think the latter, since Mr. Watts wrote his little educational gems in the 1700s, which meant that Carroll undoubtedly was required to memorize them as a school-boy himself.  Given the wit displayed in Alice, didactic recitation was probably like nails on a chalkboard to him.

At any rate, he mangles another of Watts’ poems in Chapter 10 when Alice is again required to stand and repeat the poem, “Tis The Voice of the Sluggard” by Isaac Watts.  Her version comes out nothing like this, of course.

The Sluggard
by Isaac Watts

‘Tis the voice of the sluggard; I heard him complain,
“You have waked me too soon, I must slumber again.”
As the door on its hinges, so he on his bed,
Turns his sides and his shoulders and his heavy head.

“A little more sleep, and a little more slumber;”
Thus he wastes half his days, and his hours without number,
And when he gets up, he sits folding his hands,
Or walks about sauntering, or trifling he stands.

I pass’d by his garden, and saw the wild brier,
The thorn and the thistle grow broader and higher;
The clothes that hang on him are turning to rags;
And his money still wastes till he starves or he begs.

I made him a visit, still hoping to find
That he took better care for improving his mind:
He told me his dreams, talked of eating and drinking;
But scarce reads his Bible, and never loves thinking.

Said I then to my heart, “Here’s a lesson for me,”
This man’s but a picture of what I might be:
But thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding,
Who taught me betimes to love working and reading.

Oh, but we are still not done with Chapter 10.  Carroll was waxing quite lyrical when he penned this chapter.  He finishes it off with his own version of a popular song known as “Beautiful Star.”  Carroll’s version is “Beautiful Soup.”

“Star of the Evening” (1855)
[aka “Beautiful Star”]
Words and Melody by James M. Sayles.

Beautiful star in Heaven so bright,
Softly falls thy silv’ry light,
As thou movest from earth afar,
Star of the evening, Beautiful star.
Star of the evening, Beautiful star.

Beautiful star, (Beautiful star,)
Beautiful star, (Beautiful star,)
Star of the eve-ning
Beautiful, Beautiful star.

In fancy eye’s thou seem’st to say,
Come, come with me from earth away,
Upwards thy spirit’s pinions try,
To realms of peace beyond the sky,
To realms of peace beyond the sky.

Shine on oh! star of love divine,
May our soul’s affections twine A
Around thee, as thou mov’st afar,
Star of the twilight, Beautiful star,
Star of the twilight, Beautiful star

Chapter 11

Queen_of_Hearts_Mother_Goose2The accusation read by the White Rabbit at the trial in Chapter 11 is actually taken from a nursery rhyme.

The Queen of Hearts
She made some tarts,
All on a summer’s day;
The Knave of Hearts
He stole those tarts,
And took them clean away.
The King of Hearts
Called for the tarts,
And beat the knave full sore;
The Knave of Hearts
Brought back the tarts,
And vowed he’d steal no more.

Chapter 12

The final poem in the book begins with “They told me you had been to her…” Originally the first stanza read:

She’s all my fancy painted him
(I make no idle boast);
If he or you had lost a limb,
Which would have suffered most?

But for some reason, Carroll dropped this initial stanza.  Without it, there is no way to tie his poem to the one that inspired it; perhaps this is why Carroll dropped it — the poem took on a life of its own and didn’t need the parody aspect, and since the rest of the poem had nothing to do with the original, there was no point in keeping the tie-in.

At any rate, just for the sake of history, with that first stanza, one can trace the poem to this one:

Alice Gray
William Mee

She’s all my fancy painted her, she’s lovely, she’s divine,
But her heart it is another’s, she never can be mine.
Yet loved I as man never loved, a love without decay,
Oh, my heart, my heart is breaking for the love of Alice Gray.

Her dark brown hair is braided o’er a brow of spotless white,
Her soft blue eye now languishes, now flashes with delight;
Her hair is braided not for me, the eye is turned away,
Yet my heart, my heart is breaking for the love of Alice Gray.

I’ve sunk beneath the summer’s sun, and trembled in the blast.
But my pilgrimage is nearly done, the weary conflict’s past;
And when the green sod wraps my grave, may pity haply say,
Oh, his heart, his heart is broken for the love of Alice Gray!

Categories: British Literature, Homeschooling | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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